In the early hours of the American morning on Thursday, the United States Under-20 men’s national team beat New Zealand 6-0 in South Korea to advance to the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup.
It is the second straight U-20 World Cup in which the U.S. has made it to the quarterfinals. The last time the Americans were knocked out in penalty kicks by Veljko Paunovic’s Serbia.
Paunovic and Serbia went on to win that tournament. Serbia’s historic victory, the first for Serbia in any World Cup at any age level, was the big boost to Paunovic’s coaching resume that led the Chicago Fire to hire him five months later.
“Of course it gave me I think recognition,” Paunovic said after Fire training on Thursday. “Winning the World Cup is always one of the greatest achievements so it gives you also the confidence that what you are doing is the right way to do (things), even (when) you always believe in your work. The title like that gives you the extra motivation and actually shapes and opens the path for you to keep working and improving on yourself and gives you more opportunities for a job obviously.”
Two of Paunovic’s countrymen from the coaching staff of that victorious Serbian team followed him to the Fire. Marko Mitrovic is one of the Fire’s assistant coaches and Aleksandar Saric coaches the goalkeepers. For everyone involved in that Serbian team, it was a life-changing event.
Serbia has had success in other sports. Tennis star Novak Djokovic has won 12 Grand Slam titles. Serbia has Olympic gold medals in men’s volleyball (2000), men’s water polo (2016) and the men’s basketball team won a pair of FIBA World Cups (1998 and 2002).
In soccer though, Serbia had never won a World Cup at any age level before. As a combined Yugoslavia, the country won the 1987 U-20 World Cup, but independent Serbia hadn’t found success on its own.
“That’s probably the biggest achievement in history of Serbian soccer,” Mitrovic said. “We are always the generation. Like the Cubs here with people waiting 100 years for the Cubs to win the World Series. That’s something that people in Serbia dreamed that Serbia would become the World Cup champion. We had more 100,000 people waiting in the streets for us after that. (It) is probably everyday that I think about that. That’s something that stays behind us through all our lives.”
With a population of just over 7 million, Serbia has fewer people than the Chicagoland area.
“It’s difficult to win MLS here with one city,” Saric said. “Imagine to win the world with the population the size of Chicago winning the world championship, which really is a great achievement.”
The coaches are able to keep in touch with the players from the championship team through a WhatsApp group. They communicate regularly.
“They are now all around the world, but we are still in touch,” Saric said. “We celebrate the date also when we win that.”
With a new set of players and the coaching trio now with the Fire, Serbia didn’t make it to the final round of European qualifying tournament. With Serbia out, all three took note of the success of the U.S. team.
“They are doing a great job,” Mitrovic said of the U.S. “We played against them (two years ago) and they are there again now, which I think that (coach) Tab Ramos is doing great things with that national team. Doing it twice in a row, quarterfinals, it’s a big achievement.”
Saric fondly recalled the penalty shootout in the quarterfinal between the U.S. and Serbia. Serbia goalkeeper Predrag Rajković, who was named goalkeeper of the tournament, and American goalkeeper Zack Steffen, now the starter for the Columbus Crew, both made three saves in the first eight rounds before Serbia finally won in the ninth round.
“I said because I respect what I saw in Steffen’s game before we play America, I said who wins this game, he will be probably the best goalkeeper of the tournament,” Saric said. “I said that for our newspapers. It was an amazing (shootout). We lead three times. Rajkovic saved three penalties and Steffen always when we need to score, he saved... Then it happened Rajkovic saved one extra penalty and our captain scored.”
The U.S. plays its quarterfinal against Venezuela on Sunday. Paunovic, Mitrovic and Saric have their eyes on this year’s tournament, but from a different vantage point. They are looking for potential players to bring to the Fire, although memories of two years ago are still strong.
“It’s one of the competitions that for me has a very personal and deep root inside of my feelings because of what we achieved for my country, but also it’s the great opportunity to see great young players performing and competing for the World Cup,” Paunovic said.